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John Ahlin of Journey's End

By Beth Herstein

Stark Sands, John Ahlin and Boyd Gaines
in Journey's End

Journey's End was first produced on the London stage in 1929, and it quickly catapulted its author, insurance agent and World War I veteran R. C. Sherriff, to wealth and fame. The play is set in the trenches of World War I from March 18-21, 1918, while a group of British soldiers await an imminent and devastating German attack, the first part of what is now known as the Spring Offensive. Journey's End is widely considered an anti-war play, a characterization which Sherriff disputed throughout his lifetime. Regardless, the play stands as an eloquent tribute to the soldiers who risked their lives fighting in the trenches during the first world war.

Since the 1929 production, Journey's End has remained hugely popular and much studied in England; in 2004, David Grindley mounted a successful 75th anniversary production in London's West End. Now, the play returns to Broadway for the first time since 1939, still under Grindley's taut helm but with a new and largely American cast. The powerful production stars Tony winners Boyd Gaines and Jefferson Mays, rising film star Hugh Dancy, and Stark Sands, who has appeared regularly in both film and television. In addition, this true ensemble piece provides seven other talented actors with challenging roles. One of these, veteran actor John Ahlin (recently seen in New York in The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Orson's Shadow), has a plum role, the genial Second Lieutenant Trotter. I talked to Ahlin —who shares his character's warmth and optimism —about Journey's End a week before its February 22 opening.

Beth Herstein: What has the experience been like so far?

John Ahlin:  Specifically for me, it's a once in a lifetime event. I've been doing this for 30 years. For a show like this to come along and a role like the one I'm playing ... it's hard to describe. It's such a perfect fit for me that I almost can't believe it. Every aspect of it has been wonderful —to describe a show about World War I and the trenches as ‘wonderful' ... but, I can't say enough or indicate enough about what it means to me as an actor to be part of this production.

BH:  How would you describe your role?

JA:  The character I'm playing is Trotter. He's one of the lieutenants. It's about a group of officers in a trench before a big battle in World War I. They're all English. All the characters are different, in a way. This particular character has such a good, optimistic outlook on life and is so up my alley. He has an arc to his character that is so fruitful, and he plays an integral part of the makeup of the trench. He's what every group wishes it had: a really positive person and a real go getter and a person who is aware of the situation.

What the guys do in the trench is displace. They do anything they can think of to not think about the fact that 50 yards away is the German army, intent on killing them. They have to be in the front lines for six days, and then they go back to the real lines for some rest, and then they go back up again. Just sticking through these six days is what it's all about. It's just getting through the time. They come up with these displacement activities, they think of whatever they can do to keep their mind off of the Damocles, the horror, that is right in front of them. Trotter, in particular, is really positive.

BH:   It sounds like a very different character from the one you played in Orson's Shadow.

JA:  You know, it's probably the exact opposite. Orson Welles is on the opposite end. He sees the world as a universe that is impossible to transcend. That's one of the joys of acting, that you get to play such completely different characters.

BH:   You have such a long history in the theater, and you've also done some film and TV work over the years. You've gotten to play a wide range of roles.

JA:  There seem to be characters that I can play in almost everything. I don't think of them as "character roles," though in the business that's how they're defined. I just did Waiting for Godot at the beginning of this year, and that's a completely different direction to go. The range is huge. And it is never dull. But having said all that, in particular, this play, Journey's End, is so special ... It takes place in World War I —but it's not so much that it's about World War I. It's about humanity. This is how we tell our stories, in theater. We gather in one big room and tell our stories through art and through the characters. That's why it's so meaningful to me. It does everything that a play should do. The audience is gripped, they laugh, they cry, they're stunned. They do everything.

John Ahlin and Jefferson Mays
BH:  It sounds like the response so far has been really positive.

JA:  As far as I can tell. [laughs] It takes me so long to get out of my costume that I don't have time to mingle with the audience. I hear responses that you don't usually hear. People usually say, "Oh, it was wonderful, blah, blah, blah." But, with this show people are saying how moving it is, how it's the best thing they've seen in 25 years. I'm not saying that's the overall reaction, but it's some of the reaction I've heard.

BH:   This play is really well known and widely performed in England, but not as widely known and performed here. Why do think it took as long as it has to make its way back to Broadway?

JA:  That's a good question. It's hard to say. The play is known to every English person. There is a danger in doing this play in making it too sentimental, making it about, "Oh, we're all in this together." Director David Grindley came along, he's young and he has more passion than any director I've ever seen in anything I've ever worked in. And, he's come and he's taken out that sentimentality. He has just played it as genuine and real; these are real people and a real situation. That's why it took fire again in England. Because it is about war, and they're at war and we're at war. This whole last century we've fought all our wars together, the English and the Americans. It really is our story.

The reason it hadn't taken off here [as much] is maybe this kind of approach hasn't been done. We'll see what happens this time. But, I do not doubt that New York audiences, American audiences, will latch onto this and understand this as it's meant to be understood, as a clear image of what humans do when they're in really inhuman conditions.

BH:   I read a recent New York Times article about the show, by historian Fred Smoler, which stated that the play has often been viewed as an anti-war play, but the playwright saw it as more of a tribute to the soldiers with whom he fought. I don't think that's necessarily incompatible. You also can bring to the table whatever your sentiments about war are.

JA:  I agree 100%. That's what plays are supposed to do. If you can put what the play says on a bumper sticker, why have a play? It has to touch your mind and your heart and get you thinking. R. C. Sherriff also wrote [the 1930s screenplays of] Goodbye Mr. Chips and The Invisible Man. [Journey's End] was his first big break. And, he never had a bad thing to say about anybody. This show was about the men he served with and the men who died around him.

BH:   Do you feel that your character, as the optimist, in some way is a reflection of his optimism about other people, or do you think that Sherriff's perspective is fragmented among the characters?

JA:  There's another character [Second Lieutenant Hibbert] who went through what [the playwright] did. Sherriff felt bad about not being able to face up to combat as well as he could, although later he redeemed himself. I don't know what part of him exists in my character, though as a playwright myself I know that the playwright exists in every character to some extent. But, an optimist is not about —"Oh, it'll be ok. It'll be over soon." ... The optimist is about how to approach the moments of terror and the hours of mundane nothingness that go on.

BH:   This is a very strong ensemble piece and you have such a terrific cast. What's it like working with this ensemble?

JA:  Strangely, art imitates life in that we as a cast face it all together. There's no dichotomy; every person can talk to every person. It's not like, "They're the leads and over here are the bit players." Which is rare. I don't mean it's always a bad thing. It's just how things are with a huge cast. You have these divisions naturally. Here it's not like that at all, and we're all in it together.

One of the first things we did in this rehearsal - this came out of the director, David Grindley —we staged a rugby match in the rehearsal hall. We just worked at teamwork. Primarily because one of the characters has had some success in rugby and we were trying to create that magic moment. It was just a lot of fun. We have worked together to be a team, a brotherhood, whatever you want to call it. They are just the best actors we have here in New York right now.

BH:   This is Hugh Dancy's first appearance on stage here.

JA:  Yes. And, let me tell you something. He's got it. The first day, working with him in a scene, he was right there. He's really a superb actor, and I don't say that lightly ... It's a supreme joy to share the stage with him.

BH:   And some of the other actors —Jefferson Mays and Boyd Gaines —are also people I've seen and admired.

JA:  And they are the nicest people in the world. This is going to come off as a fluffy cliche, but they are, they're just wonderful people. It's really wonderful to see Jefferson go into his role ... He's a master at it. And, Boyd, I get to enjoy his performance from three feet away.

BH:   In a Q & A with Boyd Gaines on, he was asked about the last book he read, the last CD he listened to, and it was all tied to World War I. How much research have you done in preparation for this show?

JA:  I listen to the same CDs. It's called Forgotten Voices of the Great War. In the 1970s, they went around and recorded survivors of World War I, and it is so amazing to hear their voices, to hear what they went through. They'll talk about the most horrid situations in a real matter of fact way. The person who compiled this, and who wrote books about the same thing, is named Max Arthur. He's coming to see the opening, and he was here for the first few days of rehearsal. We just picked his brain ... I'm also reading about the Peloponnesian War, and I'm reading about the Civil War. It's just so much fun for me to do the research. I'm reading The Iliad. They all feed the fire.

BH:  That pertains to what you said earlier about the universal, timeless nature of a great work. It can be true about what people go through in any period of war. I'm sure there's a lot of relevance today.

JA:  And that's the mark of a great play. If a play works, it speaks to everybody. Nearly everyone; there are some people who won't open their ears to other things. People may ask, "World War I? What relevance does that have?" Well, there's incredible relevance. It's more relevant than most anything else out there on Broadway right now. I don't mean that in a one-sided or a political way. Art at its best is above politics. How can you possibly comment on politics when everyone is screaming and yelling? That is what art is for. It has a better perch ... a better vantage point on the world than politics does. It is beyond politics and it speaks to all of us, our hearts and minds.

BH:  You mentioned that you are a playwright. Are you working on anything now?

JA:  There's a play I'm working to have done at the Barrow Group. It's not a done deal yet, but nearly. It's called Gray Area. Ironically —this is what's so wonderful about life —it is about Civil War reenactors. So it couldn't be more connected and apropos to sit in the dressing room having this one play coming over the loudspeaker while I'm working on this other one.

BH:  Had you started working on Gray Area before you knew you would be in Journey's End?

JA:  Yes. I've worked on it all across the country in different dressing rooms, in St. Louis and Cincinnati and New Jersey. It actually was performed in L.A. [in 2005]. It was a critical smash. We're trying to get it up in New York because it's worth seeing. Not to toot my own horn more than I've just tooted it.

BH:  As a writer myself, I know that I bring different things to my characters as I go through different experiences myself. Has working on Journey's End influenced your playwriting in a similar way?

JA:  I couldn't tell you exactly how, but I know it has. It's the passion, believe it or not, where you wouldn't think passion exists. In these staid, laid back British who underplay everything. And, this play that is about carrying on normal life in an extraordinary situation. What is surging under it all is a passion. This is something I know as a playwright, but I need to be reminded of it. Neil Simon says it all the time. Plays are about characters. Just to be in this play is a wonderful reminder that theater is about us. If you want to read statistics, go to the almanac. If you want to find out what kind of people inhabit our world, go to the theater.

Photos: Paul Kolnik

Journey's End
at the Belasco Theatre.
Tickets at Telecharge.

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